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Create slowly, & creative breakthroughs will come quickly

Creative breakthroughs come to you in an instant, but they can be hours, months, or years in the making. To solve creative problems fast, you need to need to move slowly.

If you had 30 seconds to look at this letter combination, what’s the likelihood you’d remember it tomorrow?*


How about if it was this letter combination?


They both contain the same letters, but the second one is much easier to remember. They’re broken up into well-recognized acronyms.

In the first case, you’re relying on your short-term memory. You’re trying to repeat the letters in your mind before time runs out. Then, you keep repeating the letters, hoping they’ll sink in.

In the second case, you’re relying more on your long-term memory. You’ve seen these acronyms before, so they’re easier to remember.

Yes, you use your long-term memory a little in the first case: Maybe you see the name “Tim,” and you remember your roommate that used to put ketchup on his pancakes.

And, yes, you use your short-term memory in the second case: You’re repeating the acronyms to yourself. But the second case is much easier because you have so many long-term memories to which you can bind the letters.

To have creative insights come to you in a flash, you need a well-stocked long-term memory. Creative insights come from connecting things.

Not all combinations of things make useful insights. Ketchup and pancakes, for example (unless your name is Tim).

But, some combinations are very useful. Like wheels and luggage. Wheels have been around for millennia, so has some form of luggage. It seems we were deep into the 20th century before someone had the bright idea of combining the two.

When you solve an insight problem, you tend to know it. Let’s think about what one word might go along with all three of these words: pine, crab, sauce.*

Maybe that word is tree? Let’s try it.

pine tree. Good.

crab tree. Nope. Let’s try again.

grass? crabgrass. saucegrass. Darn.

When the answer comes to you, it won’t likely be through process of elimination. Instead, it will come as a flash of insight. As you consider the word apple, you’ll feel a faint tingle in your brain. Pineapple, crab apple, and apple sauce all flash in your mind, like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine.

To solve this word-triad problem, you need to have the right vocabulary. The more you know, the more you have to connect.

This is why chess masters can almost instantly memorize the positions of chess pieces on a board. They’ve played so many games, and studied so much strategy, it’s all programmed into their long-term memories.

But this only works if the positions of the chess pieces are real. If the pieces are strewn about the board randomly, they’re hardly any better than someone who’s never played chess before.

If it weren’t for Charles Goodyear’s many failed experiments with rubber, he never would have recognized what an important discovery he had made when he spilled some chemicals on a hot stove — he had discovered vulcanized rubber. If it weren’t for Alexander Fleming’s prior experience working with infected battle wounds, he may not have recognized the significance of the mold that accidentally formed in his bacterial samples—he had discovered penicillin.

When you have knowledge programmed into your long-term memory, you can make connections more quickly. Your short-term memory can only hold about seven things, and your long-term memory can hold a theoretically limitless number of things. The more you have available to connect, the better your chances of making a breakthrough.

Most people, when trying to reach a creative solution, try to reach it immediately. Because you have to connect things to make creative insights, and because you have to get knowledge into your long-term memory to have things to connect, creative breakthroughs take time.

When you try to make a creative breakthrough with brute force, you just wear yourself out. This is why you get inspired to write a novel or write a song, and just get frustrated and quit. You’re trying to do the impossible.

Here are some ways to create slowly, so you can make breakthroughs fast:

  • Build a creative habit: When you build a tiny creative habit, you choose a goal that’s easier to reach.
  • Ship regularly: By creating smaller, “daily deliverables,” you build a creative vocabulary. You have a grab-bag of tricks and knowledge you can mix and match into bigger things.
  • Divide your creative work by seven mental states: Trying to power through creative projects wears you out. If you work according to mental state, you can manage your creative energy, and prevent burnout.

If you recognize that fast creative breakthroughs come from slowly-acquired knowledge and skill, you can do what it takes to let creative connections happen. Don’t wear yourself out with brute force. Put the knowledge and experience in place, and let the magic happen.

*Demonstrations from The Eureka Factor

I’m writing a book that will help you make creative breakthroughs happen. It’s called Getting Art Done, and you can learn more here »



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David Kadavy

Author, ‘Mind Management, Not Time Management’ https://amzn.to/3p5xpcV Former design & productivity advisor to Timeful (Google acq’d).